1. A healthy Steelers backfield
For the first time in quite some time, the Steelers will be at full strength in their backfield. Adam Schefter announced this morning that Rashard Mendenhall will be starting tonight and will be carrying a bulk of the workload. However, Issac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer will also be relevant in the rushing attack as this will be Mendenhall’s first start of the season. All three of these backs aren’t going to beat the Ravens in a footrace, but they are punishing backs that could pose a problem to this Ravens run defense that is 26th against the run- giving up 132 yards-per-game. The Steelers are 20th in the league in rushing, averaging just about 104 yards-per-game, but it will be interesting to see how successful this running game will be as the Steelers will look to put a heavier workload on this trio of backs, with Byron Leftwich at quarterback.
2. Cary Williams-Mike Wallace match-up
Yes, Byron Leftwich is the starting quarterback for the Steelers in tonight’s game, but he still has a plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal. His top target, Mike Wallace, has caught a touchdown in two straight contests and poses a serious threat to this Ravens secondary. Even with Leftwich as the starter, Wallace will benefit him significantly due to his prowess with yards-after-catch.
Wallace’s 51 yard touchdown against the New York Giants two weeks ago was a display of just how fast and elusive this receiver is.
Cary Williams may be leading the AFC in interceptions with four, but one might question if that is due to the increased opportunities he is seeing from more balls being thrown his way. Williams has struggled at times this season with faster receivers i.e. Week 2 against the Eagles. His job will be somewhat easier with Antonio Brown missing-in-action tonight as Leftwich will rely a little bit more on Wallace. Also, with Jimmy Smith out for an extended period of time due to groin surgery, Williams will have to step his play up even more and will have to try and keep Wallace in front of him as much as possible. Tackling is a must in the open field or else this game could be blown wide open on one little drag across the middle to No. 17.
3. Ravens attacking the seams of the Steelers defense
Troy Polamalu once again will be absent in the Steelers secondary, continuing to suffer from a nagging calf injury that has bothered him all season long. Ryan Clark remarkably was a full participant in practice at the end of the week for the Steelers, after suffering his second concussion in Monday night’s contest against the putrid Kansas City Chiefs. This looks like the spot in the defense where the Ravens will have to take advantage of their opportunities on offense. Last week, the Ravens found ways to use both tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson for the first time virtually all season last week, albeit it was against the Raiders. However, Joe Flacco seems to be a different quarterback when he gets both tight ends actively involved in the passing game. With the relentless pass rush of the Steelers, the Ravens will have to look to the quick passing game to salvage yards through the air. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron may look to use the dink-and-dunk approach with Pitta and Dickson with quick strikes off the line to keep quarterback Joe Flacco upright and the offense moving.
4. The Ravens pass rush… or lack thereof
16 sacks through nine games is not exactly lighting up the stat sheet as they are tied for 22nd in the NFL, along with surprisingly enough the Pittsburgh Steelers, in total sacks. Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe are tied for the team lead in sacks with 3.5 on the season, but they aren’t exactly penciled in as primary pass rushers on this defense. The Ravens will still look to Terrell Suggs to be his former self as he generally comes up big against the Steelers. Suggs is still not in tip-top game shape, but the Steelers have to game-plan for him as he poses the only serious threat in rushing the quarterback. Pernell McPhee will likely be out once again as he nurses a thigh injury. Haloti Ngata has been playing on virtually one good wheel all season. Terrence Cody is questionable with an arm injury. Ma’ake Kemoeatu has been dismal on both the run and the pass to say the least. DeAngelo Tyson has been somewhat of a bright spot this season in swatting passes, but he lacks the get-off-speed to pose a serious threat to even a fairly immobile Leftwich. If the Ravens are going to win the field position battle, they will have to look to Suggs to be not only the leader of the defense, but also the primary option in the pass rush game.
5. Ravens special teams vs. Steelers special teams
Although “Big” Ben Roethlisberger will be absent from tonight’s contest, there are still signs that this game will be a typical Ravens-Steelers game.
Tough, hard-hitting football that will ultimately be a field position battle.
The Ravens seemingly have the advantage in this match-up and should look to take advantage of their opportunities in the kicking and return game. Jacoby Jones has already said he has a touchdown dance planned, it’s just a matter of busting one open. Justin Tucker has been a flat-out stud this season for the Ravens, especially in the long-distance kicking game. He will have tough sledding this week as the surface of Heinz Field is… well it’s not very good. It will be interesting to see how Ravens head coach John Harbaugh’s thought process is influenced by the sloppy surface. One can also argue that Sam Koch has been the unsung hero for the Ravens this season. Based on the Ravens’ past road woes this season, he will be vital in pinning the Steelers down deep in their own territory.
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